Connecting Kids to Their Food: Entering the Food Fight
By Camila Chaparro
We had it made. Our infant son ate everything we placed before him: cubes of squishy sweet potatoes, fruit of all kinds, messy spoonful’s of brown rice, tender beef burgundy, bits of cheese, and once, to my amazement, a few curly leaves of arugula. The summer after he turned one, he picked ripe (and not so ripe) cherry tomatoes from the vine, and gleefully popped them into his mouth. By a year and a half, he was eagerly “helping” me in the kitchen. Picky eaters? Not in our house!
Or so we thought. As we entered the dreaded age of two, it was apparent we had veered off course. Too frequently we caved to his daily demands for pasta. While he still had a voracious appetite for tomatoes, most other vegetables were met with suspicion, as was most meat (except for those of the cured variety, like hotdogs, pepperoni and salami). Where had our fearless eater gone? I didn’t think that previously non-picky kids became picky eaters. I thought picky eaters were either that way from the start or a product of being offered little variety in their diet (or dare I say it: children of picky parents). But I am an avid cook, food-lover and nutrition scientist by profession—“How could this have happened to my child!?” I whined. (Was this another one of those humbling parenting experiences they don’t tell you about?)
There are likely as many strategies for getting kids to “eat their veggies” as there are meals in a week. Repetition, persuasion, even hiding those veggies in something else, are all tactics that have been suggested to broaden a child’s palate. My approach had been to try to expose my son to a wide variety of foods and to engage him with the food that ends up on his plate as much as possible: showing him where food comes from, how it is made, and letting him help in the kitchen. With the naiveté that only a first-time parent could have, I had hoped that would be enough to create a healthy and adventurous eater. Or, at the very least, I had hoped my child would be willing to eat the same thing that my husband and I were having for dinner. And yet, there we were each night, encouraging him to just try one bite, a little taste—anything! Did we need to do something else?
Pediatricians frequently tell you that it can take 10-15 times for young children to be exposed to a new food before they will eat it. Children eat what is familiar to them, and repeated exposure can make a previously unfamiliar food appear friendlier. But 10-15 times can seem like an eternity of failed attempts at the dinner table.
So who hasn’t tried a bit of persuasion, ranging from the guilt-inducing (“Clean your plate, there are starving children in the world!”), to the health-promoting (“Eat your veggies—they’re good for you!”) to the hedonistic (“Try it—it’s good!”). Turns out, we can save our breath: recent research indicates it may be better to say nothing at all.
Then there are much more clandestine approaches. Recipes “stealthily packed with unseen veggies, puréed so kids will never suspect” was the promise of “Deceptively Delicious” a cookbook for sneaking veggies to your kids. Though perhaps controversial, as a mother who has seen her child pick “the green things” out of his food, I can definitely see the appeal. But, I also think (hope?) that my son will simply grow out of his pickiness. Just like I did. Just like Frank Bruni, the former NY Times restaurant critic did. (And if a restaurant critic was once picky, isn’t there hope for us all?). Fortunately, science backs up this idea. Food neophobia (the behavior of rejecting new or unknown foods) increases from infancy to a peak between 2 and 6 years of age and then decreases with age, research shows. And as for teaching kids to cook as a way to healthy diet? My intuition seems to be right, according to a recently published study about the impact of cooking with children. Phew.
Until then, when any neophobia has naturally passed, I’ll keep looking for ways to connect my children to their food: showing them where it comes from; letting them help in the kitchen; continuing to offer new foods (and the same ones over and over); and continuing to model the diet I hope that they’ll eventually adopt. I plan to share some of these experiences—both successful and not—here on the ESS/SC blog over the next few months. I hope you’ll join the conversation and share your tips, ideas, experiences and strategies too—I would love to hear about them!
How are you developing healthy eaters in your household? What strategies have worked for you to get your children to try new foods? Let’s share our successes! I welcome you to respond in the blog comments below or email me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Camila Chaparro is a recent transplant to Massachusetts; she lives in Milton with her husband and two young sons. Her interest in food and other cultures led to a career in international nutrition, shelves overflowing with cookbooks, and entirely too much kitchen equipment. An ideal day for her would include coffee, a trip to the farmers’ market, exploring a new place (city or country) and a delicious dinner shared with family and friends.